SpaceX launches Air Force's super-secret mini-shuttle

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SpaceX is racing Hurricane Irma this morning to get its Falcon 9 rocket off the pad at Cape Canaveral and launch the Air Force's X-37B-an autonomous spaceplane that orbits for hundreds of days at a time on classified missions-up into orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage stands atop Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida after launching the USA military's X-37B space plane on its fifth classified mission for the Air Force. Cape Canaveral had already begun buckling down operations ahead of the possibility of Irma on Tuesday, entering what it calls Hurricane Condition (HURCON) 5 status.

About 2.5 minutes into the flight, the Falcon 9's two stages separated.

Previous X-37B launches had been performed by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Like the space shuttle, the X-37B launches vertically and comes to back to Earth horizontally, in a runway landing.

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The X-37B is an "experimental platform" according to the US Air Force.

Together, the two X-37Bs have completed four space missions, each of which has set a new duration standard for the program.

Previously, Lockheed Martin's Atlas rockets brought the Boeing vehicle into space. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan. Its first space flight was in 2010. The first stage has been readied for a second launch after a successful liftoff and landing in February. It stayed in orbit for almost two years on its last trip to space before it landed at Kennedy Space Centre in May.

Another Falcon 9 rocket is due for launch October 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the third batch of 10 next-generation voice and data relay satellites for Iridium.

There were concerns SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, would be forced to postpone the launch as Hurricane Irma threatens to batter Florida.

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